THE PRAYER OF ONE IN PAIN
Psalm 102: 1-17
On Tuesday 9 May 2017 Basuki Tjahaya (Cahaya) Purnama, Ahok, the governor of Jakarta was given a two-year jail sentence for blasphemy. Unexpected and unfair, said some people. Radical Muslim groups had opposed his governorial position in a Muslim majority Jakarta. He has been the target of political attack for being a Christian and a Chinese.
He had everything good until 27 September 2016. In a speech, he cited and commented on a Koranic verse. He was arguing against the idea that Muslims cannot vote for non-Muslims. This was captured on video and went viral. He was alleged to have blasphemed, insulting Islam as a non-Muslim. What followed for him was appearing in court. At the same time campaigning for re-election as governor.
Imagine the emotional and mental stress he had to bear. As a Christian, he stood up for Christ, for justice and for the welfare of everyone and against corruption. His position as governor was at stake and as to justice in court, he could only hope for the best.
Let us imagine what he would be saying to God in his prayer, "O God, what did I do wrong? Did I do anything wrong against the people or against you that I should be in trouble. You are supposed to defend me, protect me and help me because I was only serving you and serving people. Will I be delivered from judgement or go to jail. Will I retain my position as governor? God, O God answer me. Answer me now!"
Some Christians face severe testing, like Ahok. He was defeated in the re-run to be governor and went to jail for alleged blasphemy. We may be spared from severe testing for now. The passage of the Psalm we read today presents someone who was in pain. Was he afflicted mentally, emotionally or physically? Probably it was all three. Let us learn what he went through and what he learned so that we learn to handle ourselves when affliction strikes us.
1. Change Bring Pain (v1-2)
Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I call in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.
The call to God for help tells us that something has happened that had not happened before. The psalmist was in distress because of trouble. His circumstances have changed from good to bad. Change had resulted in pain. This could have been Ahok’s cry for help to God. Have things ever drastically changed for you that you had to cry out to God – critical illness, lost a job, failed an examination, or wrongly accused? To some the cry was a muted one – so great was the pain that there was no strength in the voice – the cry of silence!
People today have come to understand that things will change. An ancient Greek philosopher had realized this many century ago. Heraclitus said, “There is nothing permanent but change.” Whereas, the flamboyant 35th President of USA, John F Kennedy paraphrased it as “Everything changes except change.”
One obvious change is observed in human life – we are born, we grow old and we die. King Solomon was right when he observed that, “there is a time and a season for every activity under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3).” By rule of thumb, life seems ridiculous as all are born to die. Adversity strikes at the most unkind moment as “success turn to failure; victory to defeat; health to illness; riches to poverty; love to hate and peace to strife!
We also recognise that change brings gain. Success from failure; victory from defeat; health from illness; riches from poverty; love from hate and peace from strife! God in his providential intervention bring changes to our lives for our good and for his glory. We sometimes think that the good and glorious will remain forever. It is not true. Empires and emperors have risen and fallen. Death and decay replace life. Our good times and happy moments would suddenly be supplanted by bad times and grief!
Jewish leaders of long ago thought that Judah and Jerusalem would stand forever. They thought that God would not allow Judah to be captured, Jerusalem and the temple be destroyed (Jeremiah 7). But all three happened under the Babylonian invasion. When the city walls and temple collapsed, the stones cry out! Soon stones turned to dust. This Psalmist’s cry to God was also the cry of Judah and Jerusalem! Was the psalmist a prophet in his day? If so, this was also a prophet’s cry, for the worst that could happen had happened to the holy land, the holy city, the people and the prophet himself.
2. The Painful Prayer (v3-11)
Let us identify with the Psalmist as he cried out to God. In his distress, he was telling God how he felt and what he saw of himself. He was helpless and at the mercy of time that has no feeling and has no care. “God, where are you? See, I’m in deep trouble!”
He described his days as “vanishing like smoke.” He realised that his days were numbered as they drift like the disappearing smoke. His “bones burn,” his body was like a fiery furnace, which meant that he had high fever and scorching pain in his joints. His heart was hurting like fresh wounds of grass newly cut (v3-4). Whatever was hurting him had caused him to lose his appetite for food. His food tasted like ash of mourning and his drinks like the tears of grief (v4&9). Then he saw himself so weak and thin, as “reduced to skin and bones.” The Psalmist could only groan as he had become a dying man or a living skeleton.
The Psalmist felt abandoned to loneliness, in inhospitable surroundings and deserted by friends. He described himself “like a desert owl, an owl among the ruins and a bird alone on the roof.” These three birds are described as a pelican in the desert, an owl and a lonely sparrow (v6&7), in the King James Version. These birds were classified as unclean and were to be avoided for food. We can feel that a sense of rejection had befallen him. His physical and emotional state was certainly not a welcome sight to anyone anymore. People avoided him.
To be rejected or to be abandoned as a person or a friend is one of the main causes of emotional pain. The Psalmist complained to God what he was experiencing. He could recognise who his enemies were. They were those who showed no sympathy to him and said things to hurt his feelings. He was taunted ever so often. They belittled him and disparaged his name, and use it as a curse (v8). He felt as though it was an angry God who rejected him and cast him away into the waste dump. He felt so condemned that he saw himself going into the sunset, as shadows turned to night. His final assessment was that he would wither away like grass (v10-11).
It looked as though the final curtain had fallen on the Psalmist. Should we accept the condemnation of any setback in life we would be like the Psalmist, and let the sun set on us! On the other hand, health, sanity, peace, and victory, could be ours if we learn to accept the fact that there can be unexpected turn of events in life. How we respond to the unexpected changes will decide what these changes will do to us or do for us. The Psalmist turned to God for help and his outlook changed.
The Unchanging God (v12-17)
“But you, O Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations (v12).”
The Psalmist was in great distress. Stress and distress came from personal pain, from enemies, from rejection and a sense that God was far away. But a remarkable change happened when he looked away from himself and his problems. As he looked up to God his outlook changed. His cry “But you, O Lord,” is a statement of contrast to his problems. “But you, O Lord,” is the solution to his problems.
The Psalmist came to realize that even though the throne of David had disappeared, the throne of God in heaven is secure. Judah and Jerusalem had been sacked and shamed by the Babylonians. But the name of the Lord would be honoured and remembered forever and ever! Time and people will pass away but God and his name will remain (v24, 26-27). For us we can hold to the New Testament belief that God is “the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End...who is and who was and who is to come (Revelation 1: 8).
The Psalmist remembered that God was compassionate. He remembered that God made promises to his people. He had confidence that God would rescue Zion and raise it up (v13). Jewish people loved Zion, even its fallen stones and dust (v14). But God loved Zion more than the Jewish people do! What did this mean to the Psalmist? What can we learn today?
When Zion is restored it would be witnessed by the Gentile nations all around. God would be glorified among the nations in the restoration of Jerusalem (15). The release of Jewish Exiles from Babylon to return to Jerusalem was a testimony to the surrounding nations that the God of Israel was still on the throne, determining their destination and their destiny. God’s love for his people was unfailing and unchanging.
The Psalmist recognised that his God is the God of history. And history had shown to him that God is faithful and he does what he said. God had dealt with the big issue of Judah and Jerusalem and the enemy nation, Babylon. He had brought his people back to Jerusalem from Babylon. So, surely his personal problem, personal pain was not too big for God to handle. Do we see that God is trustworthy when we recount our personal history with God? Even though he loves the world, he knows each of us by name! Are you as convinced as the Psalmist, that the Lord would not ignore your prayer of pain or neglect your call in distress?
Can we say with the Palmist, “He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea (v17)? When the unexpected change takes place, causing us pain, know that the Lord will hear and answer our prayer. God is still on the throne and he remembers his own!
Psalm 102 - A Messianic Psalm
The God of the Psalmist is our God. The God incarnate prayed in pain. Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, is the prophetic “Man of Sorrows.” He toiled in his earthly ministry, “walking and talking,” over the hills of Judah and down to the shores of Galilee, often rejected. Jerusalem was his destination and death was his destiny.
In Gethsemane he wrestled in prayer, sweating blood. He prayed, “Father, take this cup of suffering from me,” and ended saying, “Not my will but Thine be done.” At the cross of Calvary he uttered in pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Finally, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He came to terms with his accusers and executioners. This is our God, our Lord and Saviour. He sits on the throne of heaven.
Charles Weigle made a confession in a song he wrote: “No one understands like Jesus. He’s a friend beyond compare. Meet him at the throne of mercy. He is waiting for you there. No one understands like Jesus, when the days are dark and grim. No one is so near, so dear as Jesus, cast your every care on him.”
The writer to the Book of Hebrews gave Charles Weigle’s testimonial hymn a clear basis for his confession in Hebrews 4: 14-16:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus Christ the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are- yet was without sin.
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
You know, Ahok, the governor of Jakarta lost in his re-election and is in prison. He actually appealed against his sentencing but subsequently he withdrew his appeal. He had come to terms with the court’s decision. More important is that Ahok had also come to terms with God’s will and purpose for his life.
By not pursuing his appeal, tension ebbed and life in Jakarta returned to normal. He believes that God is just and that he would be vindicated one day. He has accepted the unexpected change of events in God’s grand design for him. He believes that “God is on the throne and he remembers his own. Though trials my press us and burdens distress us he never will leave us alone.”
Let us learn from the Psalmist to trust in God and pray even in pain. We learn from Charles Weigle that “no one understands like Jesus...(so) meet him at the throne of mercy, he is waiting for you there.” Should anyone of us carry a pain in our heart, come to Jesus for he is able to sympathize with us. He was tested in every way just as we are – yet was without sin. In him we find help in our time of need.